From the Dean's Office

New Chemistry In The Faculty
by Dr David CL Lim (


Dr David: Tell us a bit about yourself as an academic and recently new Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology (FST).

Prof Latifah: I graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Chemistry in 1979 from the University of Queensland. After working for several months in UM as a tutor, I went to do my PhD in the University of Sussex in the fi eld of Organometallic Chemistry and came back to UM as a lecturer.

I held the lecturer and Associate Professor posts during my tenure from 1984 to 2002. Most of my time was spent teaching Chemistry to the Matriculation students, and the rest of my time was allocated for research in Chemistry at the Science Faculty.

I was awarded a 9-month British Fellowship to carry out research in Chemistry at the University of Wales in 1997. In 2002, I was awarded the American Fulbright Fellowship which I had to forgo because of my appointment to OUM in 2002.

I came in as an Associate Professor, and in 2003 I was appointed the Director of the Centre for Student Management (CSM) which I held for two terms from 2003 to 2009.

In May 2010, I had to relinquish my Directorship due to my recent appointment as the Dean of FST. Being a Dean is not that much different from being a Director; both positions require good skills in planning and managing the programmes and staff, as well as ensuring that all processes are in place.

Faculty matters are mostly academic in nature and have to be dealt with in a stringent manner. As the Dean, my greatest concern is to make sure that the existing courses and programmes are relevant and to come up with new programmes that cater to the interests of working adults.

Since May 2010, the faculty has been given the green light to go ahead with the preparation of the MQA documents for Master in Occupational Safety Health Management, Master of Environmental Science and Bachelor in Environmental Science, which have all been vetted by the respective Boards of Studies.

The recent announcement on the nine FST programmes that will be phased out in the September 2010 semester has given the faculty members some food for thought.

In an ODL environment, programmes that are too technical and require laboratories are to be avoided, especially when learner intake is small.

FST will instead develop programmes related to the soft sciences and mathematics and also programmes that cater to the communities at large. The faculty is working hard towards this end.

Dr David: Prior to your present position as Dean of FST, you were the Director of CSM. Can you share with us the insights you gained then, in terms of learner retention,
where OUM and other Open and Distance Learning (ODL) institutions around the world are concerned?

Prof Latifah: While in CSM, my core area of responsibility was learner retention. While we can take an easy way out by recruiting more learners every semester (which in reality is not any easier as learners shop around nowadays), it is the responsibility of OUM to ensure that enrolled learners are given the right support so that they can complete their studies and achieve their goals.

OUM is an ODL institution; the openness in itself inevitably invites attrition. Now, there are many reasons why learners leave an institution, and among the most common are fi nancial, and this is especially critical when learners have to make the transition from semester one to semester two.

Beyond semester two, most learners who do not register are those who face personal problems such as not being able to manage their time, confl icts with family and work demands, and so on.

Under my directorship, CSM had designed several programmes to help learners overcome their problems. These include academic counselling, learning skills workshops, examination clinics, dialogue sessions for gathering feedback, and also a call centre to contact dormant learners.

Social activities for the learners are also arranged, such as sports, recreational as well as academic activities in the form of seminars, IT competitions, and so on.

Dr David: Sometimes learners drop out for reasons beyond the control of the university and tutors, such as financial diffi culties and overwhelming load at work. At the same
time, there must surely be certain factors that the university and tutors can help where learner retention is concerned. Can you expand on this?

Prof Latifah: Many factors contribute to learners deciding to leave a university. They can be grouped under institutional and personal. Most of the reasons are personal, in which there is nothing much the university can do to help, except to provide guidance and advice through counselling sessions.

Institutional factors may not have a direct infl uence but can contribute to the fi nal decision made by learners. Foremost, the institution needs to provide effi cient and learner-friendly services. Being adult learners, they want to be treated with respect, so it is vital that all interactions between staff and learners be kept courteous, professional and responsive.

Foremost, the institution needs to provide effi cient and learner-friendly services.

Staff members also need to show a caring attitude. Sometimes learners just need someone to listen to them venting their frustrations. Other than the human touch, OUM’s modules need to be tip-top, error-free and easy to understand.

Learners should also be closely guided so that they are familiar with the ODL environment, particularly when it comes to preparing for online and self-managed learning.

Since many face fi nancial problems, OUM should seek ways and means of helping them solve their fi nancial issues. For those who are eligible for PTPTN and EPF withdrawal, OUM should help them upfront with the applications so as to avoid delays in getting the funds.

Perhaps the most vital role of the institution in terms of retaining learners concerns teaching and learning. The e-learning platform, with all its necessary technological requirements, should make it easy for learners to access and navigate the available resources.

Contents should be adequate and useful. They should be engaging and interesting to sustain learners’ interest in learning. There should also be suffi cient exercises to provide learners with formative feedback. As well, there should be responsive and reliable feedback from tutors concerning their performance.

In summary, OUM needs to delight learners and strive for service excellence. Today’s competitive environment demands nothing less than excellence in customer services.

Otherwise, we will lose our learners; they will not come to OUM, and even if they have enrolled with us, they may leave.

Dr David: What advice would you give to tutors who may or may not be aware that their performance as tutors has significant bearing on whether their learners complete their respective programmes or drop out?

Prof Latifah: I see the tutorial sessions as a game carried out in the fi eld. The learning centre provides the fi eld, and the players are the learners. In this context, tutors play a variety of roles: as a referee/regulator, manager, facilitator, provider, promoter and enforcer in the fi eld of teaching learning.

As a regulator/referee, tutors are to encourage learners to participate in all activities, be it learning or social. Tutors help learners manage their time, and help them resolve their problems, and at the same time provide advice and guidance.

The tutors’ main responsibility is to facilitate learning, whether face-to-face or online. Tutors should at all times promote learner retention, and should motivate learners all the way to sustain their drive to achieve.

While tutors are expected to be friendly and caring, they also ought to be an enforcer of the Code of Ethics. From time to time, learners need to be reminded about the dos and don’ts as specifi ed in the University’s rules and regulations.

Dr David: What steps is FST taking to help ensure that FST learners complete their studies instead of going offcourse and prematurely exiting the system?

Prof Latifah: The advantage of being a new member of the faculty is that I can bring about some changes to the faculty. I would like to see all programme leaders and staff take full responsibility in ensuring the effectiveness of the courses run at the faculty.

This means that staff will be monitoring the learning activities during critical times such as during the fi rst tutorial, midterm test, submission of assignment and before the fi nal examination. At the end of the semester, programme leaders will administer an online course evaluation survey to gather feedback on all aspects of the courses.

Once we have identifi ed the strengths and weaknesses of the programmes, the faculty will be able to react accordingly. The strengths will be used to promote the programme and the weaknesses will be resolved by refl ecting on what has been done and what needs to be done to enhance the programme.

Programme review will be a regular feature of special faculty meetings which are held at the end of every semester, after the results of learners have been released. This process ensures that every staff member takes pride and responsibility in their own programmes and will also promote team spirit, which is to me critical for the success of the faculty.

Dr David: On science and technology, where do you think these two overlapping fi elds will go in the next 10 to 20 years, trend-wise?

Prof Latifah: Converging the two areas of science and technology is a necessity in today’s world. Their applications are wide in all spheres of activity.

In OUM, both fi elds have been put under one faculty, namely the Faculty of Science and Technology. I believe combining the two big disciplines is a necessity because they share common principles. In order to train the technical labour force, for example, both scientifi c and technological principles need to be applied, and it is hard to separate the two.

Under the present faculty, many new multidisciplinary programmes are being developed, and presently, the faculty is focusing on areas such as environment and safety.

The buzz words nowadays are green technology, environmental sustainability, renewable energy, and so on. That indicates the importance of environmental aspects of education and management. Another area that has recently captured a lot of interest among the labour force is the area of occupational safety and health.

Every organisation now is required by law to have a qualifi ed safety and health offi cer. OUM offers the Bachelor of Occupational Safety and Health Management, while the Master of Occupational Safety and Health Management is in the pipeline. We hope to see the Master of Environmental Studies being offered in January 2011 and the Bachelor of Environmental Studies in May 2011.

Dr David: Many thanks, Prof Latifah, for sharing with us your views and insights on the workings of the Faculty.

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Tutors can ensure that learners continue their studies in OUM by:

Ensuring that learners can reach tutors most of the time for consultation
Making sure that learners understand the course material during tutorials.
Setting easy questions as assessment so that learners are not discouraged by the subject.
Designing the tutorial activities in such a way that learners appreciate the subject.
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